In classical electromagnetism, magnetic vector potential (often called A) is the vector quantity defined so that its curl is equal to the magnetic field: . Together with the electric potential φ, the magnetic vector potential can be used to specify the electric field E as well. Therefore, many equations of electromagnetism can be written either in terms of the fields E and B, or equivalently in terms of the potentials φ and A. In more advanced theories such as quantum mechanics, most equations use potentials rather than fields.
Magnetic vector potential was first introduced by Franz Ernst Neumann and Wilhelm Eduard Weber in 1845 and in 1846, respectively. Lord Kelvin also introduced vector potential in 1847, along with the formula relating it to the magnetic field.
Magnetic vector potential
If electric and magnetic fields are defined as above from potentials, they automatically satisfy two of Maxwell's equations: Gauss's law for magnetism and Faraday's law. For example, if A is continuous and well-defined everywhere, then it is guaranteed not to result in magnetic monopoles. (In the mathematical theory of magnetic monopoles, A is allowed to be either undefined or multiple-valued in some places; see magnetic monopole for details).
Starting with the above definitions and remembering that the divergence of the curl is zero and the curl of the gradient is the zero vector:
Alternatively, the existence of A and ϕ is guaranteed from these two laws using Helmholtz's theorem. For example, since the magnetic field is divergence-free (Gauss's law for magnetism; i.e., ∇ ⋅ B = 0), A always exists that satisfies the above definition.
In the SI system, the units of A are V·s·m−1 and are the same as that of momentum per unit charge, or force per unit current. In minimal coupling, qA is called the potential momentum, and is part of the canonical momentum.
Although the magnetic field B is a pseudovector (also called axial vector), the vector potential A is a polar vector. This means that if the right-hand rule for cross products were replaced with a left-hand rule, but without changing any other equations or definitions, then B would switch signs, but A would not change. This is an example of a general theorem: The curl of a polar vector is a pseudovector, and vice versa.
The above definition does not define the magnetic vector potential uniquely because, by definition, we can arbitrarily add curl-free components to the magnetic potential without changing the observed magnetic field. Thus, there is a degree of freedom available when choosing A. This condition is known as gauge invariance.
Maxwell's equations in terms of vector potential
Using the above definition of the potentials and applying it to the other two Maxwell's equations (the ones that are not automatically satisfied) results in a complicated differential equation that can be simplified using the Lorenz gauge where A is chosen to satisfy:
Calculation of potentials from source distributions
The solutions of Maxwell's equations in the Lorenz gauge (see Feynman and Jackson) with the boundary condition that both potentials go to zero sufficiently fast as they approach infinity are called the retarded potentials, which are the magnetic vector potential A(r, t) and the electric scalar potential ϕ(r, t) due to a current distribution of current density J(r′, t′), charge density ρ(r′, t′), and volume Ω, within which ρ and J are non-zero at least sometimes and some places):
There are a few notable things about A and ϕ calculated in this way:
- The Lorenz gauge condition: is satisfied.
- The position of r, the point at which values for ϕ and A are found, only enters the equation as part of the scalar distance from r′ to r. The direction from r′ to r does not enter into the equation. The only thing that matters about a source point is how far away it is.
- The integrand uses retarded time, t′. This simply reflects the fact that changes in the sources propagate at the speed of light. Hence the charge and current densities affecting the electric and magnetic potential at r and t, from remote location r′ must also be at some prior time t′.
- The equation for A is a vector equation. In Cartesian coordinates, the equation separates into three scalar equations: In this form it is easy to see that the component of A in a given direction depends only on the components of J that are in the same direction. If the current is carried in a long straight wire, A points in the same direction as the wire.
In other gauges, the formula for A and ϕ is different; for example, see Coulomb gauge for another possibility.
Depiction of the A-field
The figure to the right is an artist's depiction of the A field. The thicker lines indicate paths of higher average intensity (shorter paths have higher intensity so that the path integral is the same). The lines are drawn to (aesthetically) impart the general look of the A-field.
The drawing tacitly assumes ∇ ⋅ A = 0, true under one of the following assumptions:
- the Coulomb gauge is assumed
- the Lorenz gauge is assumed and there is no distribution of charge, ρ = 0
- the Lorenz gauge is assumed and zero frequency is assumed
- the Lorenz gauge is assumed and a non-zero but sufficiently low frequency to neglect is assumed
One motivation for doing so is that the four-potential is a mathematical four-vector. Thus, using standard four-vector transformation rules, if the electric and magnetic potentials are known in one inertial reference frame, they can be simply calculated in any other inertial reference frame.
Another, related motivation is that the content of classical electromagnetism can be written in a concise and convenient form using the electromagnetic four potential, especially when the Lorenz gauge is used. In particular, in abstract index notation, the set of Maxwell's equations (in the Lorenz gauge) may be written (in Gaussian units) as follows:
- Neumann, Franz Ernst (January 1, 1846). "Allgemeine Gesetze Der Inducirten Elektrischen Ströme (General laws of induced electrical currents)". Annalen der Physik. 143 (11): 31–34. doi:10.1002/andp.18461430103.
- Yang, ChenNing (2014). "The conceptual origins of Maxwell's equations and gauge theory". Physics Today. 67 (11): 45–51. Bibcode:2014PhT....67k..45Y. doi:10.1063/PT.3.2585.
- Feynman (1964, p. 15)
- Tensors and pseudo-tensors, lecture notes by Richard Fitzpatrick
- Jackson (1999, p. 246)
- Kraus (1984, p. 189)
- Feynman (1964, p. 11, cpt 15)
- Duffin, W.J. (1990). Electricity and Magnetism, Fourth Edition. McGraw-Hill.
- Feynman, Richard P; Leighton, Robert B; Sands, Matthew (1964). The Feynman Lectures on Physics Volume 2. Addison-Wesley. ISBN 0-201-02117-X.
- Jackson, John David (1999), Classical Electrodynamics (3rd ed.), John Wiley & Sons, ISBN 0-471-30932-X
- Kraus, John D. (1984), Electromagnetics (3rd ed.), McGraw-Hill, ISBN 0-07-035423-5
- Media related to Magnetic vector potential at Wikimedia Commons